Breakdowns: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*! by Art Spiegelman

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The Independent Culture

Art Spiegelman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus, the intensely moving 300-page graphic novel that's as much about Spiegelman's difficult relationship with his father, an Auschwitz survivor, as it is a vicarious memoir of the Holocaust. More recently, In the Shadow of No Towers stood practically alone as a valid artistic response to 9/11. Just turned 60, Spiegelman is in danger of becoming the Grand Old Man who has made comics respectable.

Never fear. The republication three decades on of Breakdowns, his 1978 collection of "underground" work, together with a new comic foreword and prose afterword, joyously torpedoes any inclination to hagiography.

Here you'll find Spiegelman's earliest fumblings with comic art: his admiration for the doyen of self-analysing, LSD-fuelled comics, Robert Crumb; his attempts to make money drawing for skin magazines (this book is labelled "adults only"), despite finding it impossible not to subvert the genre; and his growing conviction that comics could be as innovative structurally and as daring thematically as anything in cinema.

But the real sucker punch is, as ever, his family relationship. The 1972 strip "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" is a primal howl not so much of pain as of rage at his mother's suicide. In the new foreword, Spiegelman proudly hands his own son a present "that's been in the family for years". The excited boy opens it, to find a fire-breathing monster with a concentration-camp hat. "It makes you feel so worthless you don't believe you even have the right to breathe," he explains happily. "Just think! Someday you'll be able to pass it on to your son!" Unflinching.